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March 8, 2016

3 Keys to Conscious Performance Reviews

Most people hate annual performance reviews. Many executives and managers doing the reviewing consider it to be burdensome, as evidenced by their procrastination. Those being reviewed are usually in a fear-based, adrenalized, reactive state so they don’t hear anything that is said except how their comp is going to be affected.

Daniel Pink nails two of the key problems with annual performance reviews in his article “Think Tank: Fix the workplace, not the workers”

“First, it's annual. It's hard to get better at something if you receive feedback on your performance just once a year. Think about Rafael Nadal. His job happens to be to hit tennis balls back and forth across a court. Now imagine if Nadal played tennis for an entire season – and got feedback on his performance only once a year in a 45-minute meeting with his boss. Absurd, right?
Second, performance reviews are rarely authentic conversations. More often, they are the West's form of kabuki theatre – highly stylised rituals in which people recite predictable lines in a formulaic way and hope the experience ends very quickly.”

(More about authenticity in just a minute)

But, it appears annual performance reviews are here to stay, at least for a while. So if you’re going to do them here are some tips on how to do them consciously:

1.     Take 100% responsibility for how you as their manager co-created the situation.

Say you’re giving feedback to a teammate that they are routinely late for meetings, which interrupts the experience of the group. As part of your feedback, becoming curious about how you have co-created this experience might sound like this:

Say you’re giving feedback to a teammate that they are routinely late for meetings, which interrupts the experience of the group. As part of your feedback, becoming curious about how you have co-created this experience might sound like this:

“Mary, I want to address your tardiness to meetings and appointments. I believe this is affecting how you are viewed by the team, by clients and by senior management. I would like you to face this pattern and deal with it. I also want to take 100% responsibility for how I have co-created this outcome. What I’m aware of is that I have never had a direct conversation with you to ask if you would be willing to commit to keeping your agreements around time. Expecting you to keep agreements without having an authentic conversation about my desires has partially set us up for this result. Also, I’ve kept this pattern going by not directly expressing my upset to you when it happens. Finally, I notice I’m not always impeccable about keeping my agreements; I want to recommit to that as I ask you to commit to keeping yours.”

2.     Separate fact from story when giving feedback.

Facts are what a video camera would have recorded. They are unarguable and indisputable.  Stories are what human beings make up about the world. Stories include beliefs, judgments and opinions. Great managers distinguish fact from story. They stipulate the facts and they hold their stories lightly. This means they drop their attachment to being right about their opinions and instead are interested in authentic dialogue.

If we stay with Mary and her tardiness to meetings the feedback would sound like this:

“Mary, the facts are that you agreed in our last team meeting to join us for our planning session on Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. The facts are also that our weekly review begins at 8:30 on Monday morning and you have shown up after 8:30 four of the last six Mondays.”

“The stories that I’m making up are that you don’t value our team meetings enough to prioritize them in your schedule. Also, I make up the story that you don’t create any buffer time in your schedule so you run at the razor’s edge and are often late for other appointments. Finally, my story is that living this way is causing you unnecessary stress and sapping energy that you could be using more creatively. I’m not attached to being right about my stories; I want to reveal them to you so we can have an authentic conversation and come to a shared agreement on how to proceed.”

3.     Be authentic.

Let’s go back to Pink’s point that most performance reviews are, “highly stylized rituals in which people recite predictable lines in a formulaic way.” Or said another way, inauthentic.

Authentic conversations require candor, deep listening, allowing for feelings and, most importantly, curiosity.  

Start with deep curiosity and a willingness to learn as much as you can from the process and the review itself. If you come to the event as a learner you’ll get much more from the process. Chances are your teammate will be open to learning as well. Second, welcome authentic feelings (anger, fear, sadness, joy) as part of the process. Welcome yours and theirs.  Feelings are part of being human; they are always in the workplace and in performance reviews, so go ahead and acknowledge them. Finally, be direct. Say everything you have to say. Reveal, don’t conceal. And, while you’re doing that, listen deeply. Listen at least as much as you talk.

With these three practices in place, performance reviews can shift from being something we endure to something that greatly improves individuals, teams and cultures.

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